Destinni paced the floor of her ancestral manor. Did Captain Rick FitzHazard, the only man she had ever loved, swing from the gallows like the pendulum on her father’s clock? Or — she pressed her hand to her lips — had he escaped Cromwell’s hangman?
Sadly, we’ll never know. But we can be clear about the shortcomings of this English Civil War epic. For one thing, nobody in 1640s England was called Destinni.
For another, the clock can’t have a pendulum: that kind of timepiece came in after the Civil War.
How Important Are These Mistakes?
The first kind of error, insensitivity to historical atmosphere, is pretty much the result of the self-publishing revolution. Editors of the old school could put stuff like Vikings, Napoleon, and the Romans into historical order without drawing breath, and they expected their authors to have the same feeling for their period.
Today, however, a writer’s outright ignorance of the past may not trouble readers. Some won’t wince when the footman announces Lady Cherish de Randall, and not even when the French win the Battle of Trafalgar.
So how come you don’t merit the same indulgence when you make the second sort of mistake, when you mess up the actual facts? You may live so intensively in the Middle Ages that you think Britney Spears is standing for US President in 2016, but just that once you pin a duke’s cockade on the wrong side of his helmet and you end up with a withering notice on Amazon. Meanwhile Destinni has 250 five-star reviews and is #1 in Free Historical Romance. Life can be so unfair.
You’ve read the advice out there — how to do research, and (just as important) how not to swamp your historical fiction with it. But no matter how deeply you delve into your subject, sooner or later you’ll assert something that simply wasn’t so.
And even if it were possible to be spot on, every single time, there’s a subtler sense in which you can never be quite accurate. True-to-life historical dialogue will lose you readers quicker than fleas deserting a plague rat. And, since those readers will be less than grateful for your comprehensive treatment of events — the ones that academic historians fight duels over — simplifying the past is the only practical option.
How Do You Handle the Past, Then?
The ideal historical novel remains an illusion. However much it might convince, however intensely it entertains, it’s a rendering of the past, not antiquity itself. And if it’s a real novel, a character-driven story, even the most critical reader should be sufficiently entranced to forgive your occasional mild slip.
Secondly, your take on the past may allow for, even be enhanced by, playing fast and loose with history. Writing a brand of noir set in Mozart’s time, improbable in itself, I permit my characters to say and do things which are anachronistic. (My worst offence is to have a gang in 1774 do a SWAT analysis of a Venetian moneylender’s operation.) I’m satisfied that this approach suits the stories, and all I can hope is that character, narrative, and atmosphere carry the day.
If you’re more extreme than this, and your historical writing is really a kind of fantasy, paranormal or not, you’ll keep on doing it anyway, and your readers will know by now not to hold you to account, assuming they care. If, like most historical novelists, your fidelity to the past is stronger than your wedding vows, you’ll torture yourself when you’re caught out, and that won’t be often.
Do be aware, though, there are categories of historical novel where inaccuracy will be severely penalized by readers. Stories which turn on precise technical points — such as military or maritime accounts — or mysteries over which speculation has long been intense, like the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, need to be grounded in the known or the knowable.
But over and above that, it’s fair to say that the notion of accuracy needn’t maintain an iron grip on your historical writing.
PS: (For those of you who have to know: Rick FitzHazard overpowered his jailer and escaped on faithful Diablo.)
This post first appeared as a guest blog on http://bookmarketingtools.com/
Thanks to author author Sue Seabury, on whose blog, The TechnoPeasant, this interview first appeared.
So, David, what sort of thing do you write?
I write mystery thrillers featuring Sophie Rathenau. An investigator in Mozart’s Vienna, she’s tousle-headed, modest of bosom, large of hand, acid-tongued, and inclined to be self-righteous. Getting involved in the direst conspiracies of her day, she needs all her wits to come out in one piece.
A miscarriage and the loss of her husband take her from the acute loneliness of book 1, The Prussian Dispatch, to a real place in society by the end of the series.
Which writers have inspired you?
Years ago I was addicted to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, which no doubt influenced my choice of genre. I didn’t guess at the time that a female main character, one from the past, was a means of keeping the Parker influence at gunpoint. But no one reading my books, if at all familiar with Parker’s style of noir, will be unaware of my debt.
An equally powerful influence is opera: The Marriage of Figaro, Così, and particularly Fidelio. The departure point for the stories is really the question of how Leonore continues when Florestan has died. Sophie’s attitude is probably inspired by Leonore’s romantic impulsiveness, as in the heart-rending moment when she swears to use her one chance to free Pizarro’s prisoner, still unsure whether it’s her husband.
Why do you write from a female point of view?
Apart from heroics, which I wouldn’t be good at, Sophie’s tone of voice and attitudes to the world – her aesthetics, even – are simply mine. She popped into my head at the moment it occurred to me to write about Vienna in 1770, and I’ve found her voice comfortable ever since. Pre-Sophie, I found fiction projects hard to complete, and my male characters thin and disengaged. Looking at men from Sophie’s angle has rounded mine out. My only problem is maintaining a respectful distance from Sophie’s gynaecology while seeding some clues to her premature ovarian failure. (But this diagnosis is less than foolproof even today, so she may be in for a shock yet.)
Do you work to an outline or plot, or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you?
I began by sniffing after a rough idea, like the Habsburg civil service tracking the correspondence of their Prussian arch-enemies. I still believe in flexibility, but nowadays I like to have a detailed sense of where I’m bound, to feel the wider story developing. It’s important that, in time, Sophie will take on an adopted child and a regular lover, and the cues have to be implanted earlier: so the child walks on the third chapter of the first book, but at that point no one knows it.
There’s no fixed formula, however. It’s good to follow your nose: improvise another plot, try a different point of view, let a supporting character have her head. Like Isabella, the archduchess in Serene, to whom I didn’t think Sophie would yield so much of the stage, though when she does it creates the story. In the fourth book there are chapters in which Sophie doesn’t appear, although the series is first-person.
What is the hardest thing about writing?
Sophie just wants to talk: she could fill a book wandering around Vienna, so completing pages can be all too easy. I often have to remind her there’s a story to put over. And when I don’t want to work, her foot-tapping urges me to get on with it. I think the hardest thing about writing is the knowledge of choice, the feeling that it’s always possible to be doing something else. But when it’s going well there’s nothing better.
How much research do you do?
Being at home in the settings – Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Constantinople – was, I’m sure, an unconscious reason for veering towards them. I love smuggling in my enthusiasm for these cities under Sophie’s blasé attitude.
The minutiae of everyday life in her time are fascinating – a lifetime could be devoted to dress alone. Still, too much detail can slow the pace, so I like throwing in weird things a reader wouldn’t expect: King Augustus the Strong’s sport of fox-hurling, or long-forgotten weapons like a hand cannon.
I’ll visit any local history museum in central Europe. But I did have an odd experience in Salzburg’s exhibition of traditional farmhouses. After an hour of taking photos for my book site on Pinterest in a creaking homestead from Sophie’s childhood, I was overcome by crippling emotion and had to get out. I still don’t know what caused that.
How true do you feel you have to be to the historical setting?
Apart from flourishes of eighteenth-century talk – extracts from letters, stuffy officials, aristocratic pomposity – the tone in the books tends to the modern. I don’t worry if Sophie uses a word that’s up to date, because I see the text as a translation from her era.
But I hope she doesn’t come across a conscious feminist in today’s sense, even though she’s riled by gender injustice, like many female characters in the stories and plays of her time: women who can’t control their fertility, don’t expect to, and are quite aware that things are stacked against them. Nonetheless, Sophie’s operating a mere fifteen years before the existing order was upturned in France, with wild new ideas about roles and social attitudes.
Readers enjoy catching you out on historical detail, such as Sophie’s marital aunt wearing knickers, which women didn’t in the 1770s. Yet a few women of damaged reputation did, which was the character point I wanted to prepare.
Where is the series headed?
With luck, I’ll produce seven novels altogether, with a few vignettes to cover later phases in Sophie’s life. I’ve witnessed her passing in considerable detail, though I’m not sure how I’d ever write that. But there are tiny clues in odd corners of the books…
What are you working on now?
Book 2, Lay Brothers, (Sophie’s tangle with the Jesuits) will appear this Autumn. The third, Serene, is set in Venice, where Sophie guards wayward Habsburg Isabella. It should be available in 2017.
By Charles FitzRoy (Thames & Hudson, £12.95)
This improbable travel companion was, for me, the highlight of this year’s Christmas.
Mr FitzRoy proposes, with no needless earnest, to be your guide in the Istanbul of 1750, as if you were extending your Grand Tour eastwards. (I did wonder whether any European of 1750 would refer to the place as ‘Istanbul', but no matter.) He introduces us to the very mixed locals, with their highly coloured footwear, cafes and habitats, takes you round Topkapı Palace and the Harem, shows you the main sights and slips you into the city’s great celebrations - all in an engaging style that maintains the fiction of being an eighteenth-century vademecum while never lapsing into pastiche.
The book is very informative, though free of any buttonholing harassment. While I’ve probably forgotten much more about Ottoman Constantinople than I realise, I’m sure I never knew that the Balat district was named after a palace (‘palation’). The municipality of Beşiktaş (where in recent years a hidden tea garden of effortless charm, perfect for whiling away a late afternoon, has been supplanted by a featureless restaurant and takeaway) is so called for a stone on which the infant Jesus had been washed: again, my memory is innocent of this notion, though, as I discover, it's but one of the theories. Not had I any idea that the imam would climb the pulpit steps in Ayasofya with a naked scimitar, in token of the principal church of Christendom being taken by storm in 1543.
There’s very much more than this to enjoy here, and I’d devoured it all before making Christmas dinner. Thames & Hudson’s historical guide book idea is seductive: I look forward to examining their Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day or The Wild West on Five Bits a Day. And unsurprisingly from this publisher, the book is beautifully set and illustrated (both visually and with snippets from authors of the time). I found it an utter pleasure.
But The Sultan’s Istanbul on Five Kurush a Day may ultimately give me more than a few problems. Sophie Rathenau is expected in Constantinople in the mid-1770s, and how I’ll accomplish that without cribbing shamelessly from Mr FitzRoy I hardly know. There had been an academy in Vienna for Sprachknaben from 1754 - it trained boys in oriental languages because dragomans, the local translators, were unreliable and corrupt, another fact you’ll learn from The Sultan’s Istanbul - but Sophie, as her readers know, has already taken her first faltering steps in Turkish, and will doubtless have achieved some fluency by that time.
I’m not ashamed to admit how much I’ve learned from What would Keir Hardie Say? Exploring his vision and relevance to 21st century politics (edited by Pauline Bryan). It’s full of remarkable facts of which I had no idea. Almost incredibly, the great Christian Socialist was brought up in an unbelieving household; improbably, given his terrifying beard, children adored him as they did Kim Jong Il, although in Hardie’s case there is firm evidence they actually did; and for all Hardie's dogged support for universal suffrage, his relations with Christabel Pankhurst were anything but straightforward. (That bit I might perhaps have guessed).
This comprehensive review from Luath Press attempts to balance a celebration of Hardie’s extraordinary life, achievement, and values with an assessment of Labour’s historic and current commitment to the last of these. Very effectively it does that, too, with contributions from (among others) writer and campaigner Melissa Benn, and Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of much of the British Labour Party.
The book underlines the remarkable emergence of this central figure in the creation of Britain’s traditional Left. The poverty and devastation of his working-class background might have destroyed anyone, yet, with titanic energy and unwavering vision, Hardie overcame it - though in another sense never abandoning it - to become a figure of prophetic status, heralding internationalist, feminist and pacifist struggles.
Particular chapters take my wayward fancy, for example Bob Holman’s on Hardie’s Christianity. Given the horrendous conditions of the time, it's more than reasonable that an agitator like Hardie should lay overwhelming stress on the practical relief of misery, and all but none on nuance of belief. But Holman’s exploration of Hardie’s deep spirituality casts new light for me on Hardie’s nature. And Fran Abram’s account of Hardie’s commitment to female suffrage, fascinating in its balance of Hardie’s shrewd tactical sense in pursuing new voters with a more profound involvement with women’s dismissed and neglected being, opens terra incognita for me.
Inevitable is the book’s summing up (necessarily piecemeal among the contributors) of Hardie’s legacy and its import for the present, with light on the internationalism or otherwise of resurgent Scottish nationalism, as well as the growing gap between rich and poor. As Pauline Bryan notes in her introduction, Hardie ‘continues to be a touchstone for judging whether the Labour Party is living up to his standards.’ The contributors certainly work hard to present those exacting standards, if seeming a little reluctant to consider the sheer impossibility of comparing our vision with Hardie’s. Hardie represents True North not solely because of his astonishing insight and diligence, but also because of the perversions of the intervening century. We have no passage back to that essential innocence.
I sometimes wondered while reading, finger tracing the line to the whisper of my lips, why socialist writers are so little inclined to use commas in the longish paragraphs which crave them, and pondered the theory that, haunted by an instinctive fear of the police breaking up their meeting, they like to cram in as much as possible at blistering speed. Perhaps socialist economists might confirm that, in a society like ours, commas are as near to free goods as anything can be.
But comma-rich or not, this is a marvellous and timely compendium of Hardie thought and lore. If you’re as big an ignoramus as I’ve been on the detail of Hardie’s life and contribution, this book is the perfect remedy.
More information and orders:
The Seed-box Lantern: New & Selected Poems (Mariscat Press)
Through the generosity of Mariscat Press, the eminent poetry publisher, a small stack of books recently came home with me from a visit to Scotland. I can claim a moment’s distinction in that a pamphlet of mine, XII from Catullus, was the imprint’s first publication: a roughish affair, whether we’re talking about the production values or the poems themselves. But since that milestone in 1982, poet and publisher Hamish Whyte has turned out volume after distinguished volume, encompassing such poets as Edwin Morgan (for whose Mariscat appearances I ran up two or three covers), Gael Turnbull, Valerie Thornton and Stewart Conn, to name a few in this who’s who of Scottish poetry.
Mariscat productions are celebrated as much for their design and print as their select choice of contributing poets, and Diana Hendry’s latest appearance, The Seed-box Lantern: New & Selected Poems, fits that bill comfortably. Poet, short story writer and (among her other accomplishments) children’s author Diana Hendry has woven a beguiling variety of themes into this collection - a delight to pick up and browse as well as to read.
Here gape, among uneasy reflections on female relatives and quick flirts with philosophical despair, Andean gorges and Greek skies. Home base is, appropriately, the everyday, and an everyday seen with a refreshing eye (‘cellophane sticky as semen’ is but one of the unexpected apercus in these pages) yet we never take the unserious risk of growing stale there, and are soon off in search of wider horizons:
The sea’s trying
to find the far edge of sky
In vistas like these, Diana Hendry’s affinity with other modes of being becomes very palpable, as in her sympathy with seals:
Someone has stitched them up
iin sleeping bags of stained grey satin
Or at her apple tree, which ‘stands/on one leg’ (Apple Sense). Especially subtle are the gradations in Hendry’s empathy, where the creatures or objects she contemplates are not patronised into ‘ others' with whom we can, given a flash of imagination, commune, but greeted as fellow travellers, beings themselves in the process of change.
As indeed are her closer connections, populating much of the book, and no less themselves for Hendry's close scrutiny and edgy faiblesses. Of an infant daughter we’re told ‘We quarrel while you’re in the bath’, and it’s soon clear the verb is less a piquant whimsy, more an all-but-welcome report of respective status. The poem itself, The Stranger, moves from a quiet start to a heartbreak of remnant having, rather than outright loss:
Queer, but I’m glad of ghosts and fear
That if they leave, I’ll lose your shade to pin
Love to. Then love, that hall-light left all night
For you, might break its filament, or fuse.
The Stranger is token of Diana Hendry’s mastery of time: she flicks into a past as easily as one thumbs the pages of a photograph album, only thereafter sensing the weight of the leaves. A father’s reticent knocking on a daughter’s door is a constant reminder of him, like a leitmotif (Father’s Doors); a mother’s incapacity in age, in one breath her child’s inability to catch up with her (Waiting). Beneath the regret beats a vein of faith that the journey is to some end, sometimes swelling to unabashed hymn, almost browbeating us into singing along. There are many chords on Hendry's score, though it's ultimately for one engaging voice.
I’ve no more relish nowadays for a tussle with a poet than has the bleary sheriff with the unwary gunslinger who hasn’t sized him up properly. If I want puzzles, there's the Turkish homework I haven’t done. But Diana Hendry’s conundrums are those of existence itself, dilemmas she reminds us that we share. Her companionable voice, in its many tones, invites us to explore them further, and to enjoy its ring on the way.
Diana Hendry’s home page
Diana Hendry’s Amazon author page
As you can imagine, I very much hope that readers take to the character of Sophie. She’s clearly the driving force of the novels (I can see three novels at the moment, though most readers can only see one). Nonetheless, some readers are bound to ask why she's there in the first place. Don't I find her point of view awkward? Do I really plan to continue with it? Wouldn't I just find things easier from a male perspective?
Well, when I first started writing Sophie, I was ten years older than she was, Now that's thirty years older, and most of that time she spent in suspended animation. However, she's been with me for a third of my life in one sense or another, and I'm very used to her. My first thoughts about the series dwelt on period rather than character. As soon as I'd decided that I really wanted to write about the time of Maria Theresia, however, Sophie leapt into my brain, almost fully formed as a personality. Within seconds she had crowded out any male figure who might have been the main character.
Nor was there ever much doubt about the first person perspective. Her voice was recognisable within the first pages, and so much poured out so quickly (most later tossed away) that I swiftly accepted her narration as a sort of free gift.
Only later did I notice that certain advantages came with her all-too-ready storytelling. In her society she's always behind the eight ball, an outsider who has to struggle to make any impact, but at the same time she became the entrée to a much wider range of female characters than I’d used before. Meanwhile the male characters became much more varied than I’d experienced in previous writing.
And it was later still, as the sadness in her past was slowly revealed, that I realised how she’d suckered me into telling a story that’s still spinning, and into suffering something of what she’s suffered. She’s still capable of leaving me hollow and devastated, or of surprising me with some outrageous behaviour. And, as she uncovers her story piece by piece to me, there’s no real resistance in me. Yes, I really plan to continue.